Vin Hunter, the self-proclaimed “wine sleuth” for Heinen’s Fine Foods, recently took to Twitter and tempted shoppers: “Wine on tap? Yes! While you shop, only at the Heinen’s in Pepper Pike.”

The 18-store retailer’s fictional character has been a regular in the marketing department for more than a decade, alerting customers to great wine finds and incredible deals. In this particular instance, he was promoting the availability of wines for sampling at one store where it’s legal to offer such shopping incentives.

Hunter is a newcomer to social media, his boss explains.

“It’s just starting out, but it’s already a great way to connect the source to the audience on a pretty quick basis,” said Ed Thompkins, the real Vin Hunter who serves as Heinen’s wine and beer buyer.


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Digital marketing comes along at a perfect time for supermarket wine departments, which have been casting about for fresh ways to attract consumers. Retailers say traditional events like dinners belong to an era that’s quickly drawing to a close, and wine lovers are eager for new opportunities to interact with vintages and their fellow oenophiles.

“There seem to be a lot less wine dinners all over during the last few years,” observed Geoff Nicoll, director of wine and spirits at Bristol Farms, Carson, Calif. “I don’t know if they’ve worn out their welcome or what.”

Bristol Farms offers wine at 11 of its 12 namesake stores, as well as two stores it owns under the Lazy Acres banner. While the retailer might not be keen on elaborate dinners, the six-wine, $20 Tuesday and Thursday tasting events hosted by several stores with cafes for some 25 years are as popular as ever.

“They’re more of a laissez-faire, happy hour-type event. We have them in seven of our stores, and they’re very successful,” Nicoll said.

“Sometimes we have visiting winemakers or suppliers; otherwise people just like to relax and enjoy the evening. We have a core group of regulars.”

Dierbergs and other retailers are testing Skype-led celebrity tastings. Dinners that add digital elements can still attract crowds. Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo., organizes a popular series of events that are led by a host via Skype, the Internet-based audio-visual communications service. A recent wine dinner was coordinated with Tyler Florence to promote his own-label wines.

“He skyped from California, walked guests through the various wines and had them sample as he spoke,” said Todd Vasel, a spokesperson for the chain. “The Skype format allowed guests to ask questions directly of Tyler. When the tasting event was complete, we moved the class into an appetizer cooking session where we paired foods with the featured Tyler Florence wines.”

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Dierbergs has held other Skype-based occasions inside the Culinary Event Center at its new Des Peres, Mo., store, but the Tyler tasting demonstrates that the wine category can keep up with advances in technology — a key to winning new consumers, notes Heinen’s Thompkins.

“Social media seems to be the only source of information for a lot of people, especially the younger consumer, so you need to be active in that arena,” he said.

Wine sales are also getting a fresh boost from the most unlikely of sources — and it’s right across the aisle.